I am here in London at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where 2500 people are gathering this week to brainstorm, network, and take the power pulse for 2011.
I am a newbie to Davos, having been invited as a historian from the Harvard Business School. My small charge is to offer up relevant lessons from the past, including those provided by particular role models and failures. Along with other academics and some business leaders, I will present my thoughts in discussion groups during dinner over the next three consecutive evenings.
In preceding years, I have followed the happenings of this annual event--its movings and shakings, its cast of characters, its high-profile, electric energy --because I am interested in social entrepreneurs and business leaders with broader ambitions than shareholder returns (and because I am a Bono groupie, and he is a regular participant at Davos).
The theme for the 2011 meeting is "Shared Norms for the New Reality" in recognition of the increasing interconnections among nations, people, issues, and our collective fates. More than 200 sessions, large and small, and a host of players from Kofi Annan to Bill Clinton to Robert DeNiro to Melinda Gates to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the board of Nestlé, will take up aspects of this broader theme during the next four days.
The World Economic Forum (originally named the European Management Forum) was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German-born professor. It was originally envisioned as a setting in which business and other leaders could exchange a variety of ideas about management, conflict resolution and other issues. In the ensuing years, the annual meeting, known colloquially as Davos, has taken on a life of its own as a convocation dedicated not only to structured idea generation and problem solving, but also to informal milling and networking among some of the world's most influential elites. In the process, it has become something of an event unto itself in which the who's who list of top tier participants (and how they themselves mix and mingle) generates almost as much buzz as the ideas and policy proposals emanating from the halls and conference rooms.
Since its inception, Davos has pointed toward the future. Each year, individuals of great authority gather in this mountain village to discuss how to work together to help create a better, more stable, and productive world order. Throughout the conversations, participants are asking themselves and each other: "where is the world headed? What will our global village look like in two, five or 10 years from now? Given these scenarios, what do we need to be doing today?" Taken together, these are big deal gauntlets for leaders to pick up, especially now, when a combination of rising income and wealth inequality, stagnant economic growth, and sweeping political turbulence have made citizens from Athens to Tunis to Detroit confused and increasingly mistrustful of established institutions and the people who run them.
How will the men and women who are assembling at Davos this week respond to rising discontent and the populist fires stoked by such ire? What kind of actionable possibilities will they put forth, individually and collectively, to address the urgent problems confronting us: from the ticking time bombs of our global financial system and environment to the rapid dismantling of the social contract in many developed countries?
When the doors to the Congress Centre, the main site of the Forum, close on Sunday and the last iPad is packed into a carry-on bag, few of these questions will be answered conclusively. But for many of the people choosing to watch the comings and goings at Davos and taking its measure, the key reference point will be less about specific policy solutions and more about effective leadership. Are the men and women who wield great authority in the global power structure willing to consistently act on the responsibility that such influence entails? Amidst the Moncler coats amassed in the small Swiss town, which individuals will evidence the integrity, empathy, and pragmatism essential to sound governance in the complex, wondrous, and fragile enterprise we call "mother earth"? And who watching from the outside will take their cues from such leaders and go on to influence others toward similar ends in many parts of the globe?
This is the real story of Davos--one more important than what kind of glasses Bono is wearing this week.
Tomorrow: Stay tuned for more news from the front lines of Davos, and my discussion on Role Models for the 21st Century. You can also follow my tweets live from Davos.